Monday, July 28, 2014

Paragraphs from the unrealized tome on Astral Weeks; or, 2,000 words of pretentious hooey

Liz Lupton, a publicist at Berklee College of Music, vigorously scrapes the soles of her shoes on the sidewalk, a gesture that reminds me of someone wiping their feet on a doormat following a long traipse through heavy mud. We inhale the fresh autumn air, which is satisfyingly sweet compared to the suffocating mustiness we just left behind, and squint as our eyes adjust from subterranean gloom to afternoon daylight.

"I went to college in Indiana and lived with four girls," Lupton tells me, "and our place wasn't nearly as gross. I feel like I need a shower."

Lupton and I are standing outside 1120 Bolyston Street in downtown Boston. This bustling block is part of Berklee's sprawling urban campus; students dart past alone or in groups, carrying bulky instrument cases and overstuffed knapsacks, hurrying to one of the college's various clinics or classes. Had I been presented the task of forming a capable backing band—for any frontman in any genre—a 30-second canvassing of my immediate area would unearth all the necessary musicians. (I think I even saw a flugelhorn.) My thoughts suddenly turn to Van Morrison and how he did just that—and right here, at Berklee, one of the world’s most prestigious music schools. And how night after night during the summer of 1968, a pair of unknown musicians followed the young Irish songwriter through the battered door behind me, down a long set of dilapidated stairways and into a shadowy cavity hollowed out of the earth beneath busy urban streets. There, the trio performed on a tiny stage to sparse yet receptive crowds.

I'm standing outside 1120 Bolyston Street, site of an old music club known as the Catacombs—its labyrinthine hallways, fixed shadows, and slight air of mystery making it truly deserving of this name. If the place where Astral Weeks' heart began beating was Morrison's cramped bedroom in his parents' home in East Belfast, then it was here at the Catacombs in Boston that the album took its first sharp and heavy breaths.

I can't help but smile. The old music club's current state—with its peculiar smells, begrimed walls, dead vermin, and piles of mouse excrement in the corners—has my accomplice visibly disgusted. Me? I am absolutely buzzing with excitement. Months of searching have delivered a most satisfying ending.

* * * * *

For me, Astral Weeks has no ending, no definitive conclusion. The album's spastic, startling terminus—the bleats from John Payne's soprano saxophone, the final, labored gasps from Richard Davis' bass, the thumping from Morrison thwacking the side of his acoustic guitar—heard during the final seconds of "Slim Slow Slider," only makes sense when it flows immediately into the opening of the introductory title track. (Accomplishing this on either vinyl or cassette—yes, I own Astral Weeks on both formats; call me a geeky completist—is obviously impossible. Meaning, regrettably, I often prefer the album on compact disc or a digital music player.) The abrupt, alien-sounding finish to "Slim Slow Slider" followed directly by the sudden, rich, melodious cacophony that kicks off "Astral Weeks" ... It's not unlike another complex work from another renowned Irishman: In James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, the fragments of words at the novel's opening and close link up to create one complete, visually arresting image. For Joyce, the end is the beginning is the end (or as he wrote in Finnegans Wake, "a commodius vicus of recirculation").

Astral Weeks is similarly cyclical—a spiral winding its way into the subconscious. Its sounds and themes and styles go around and around and come back again. Life is presented in all its circular totality: joy and despair, sin and redemption, home and exile, love and heartache, birth and death. I can't recollect the first time I heard the album; meanwhile, its perpetual presence in my life means I often can't recall my most recent listen. Astral Weeks is absolute; Astral Weeks is infinite.

If this sounds pretentious, well, I suppose that is the point. For decades now, writers have showered Astral Weeks with gleaming, glistening superlatives. Consider this passage from a 2,300-word article of devotion penned by The Guardian's Sean O'Hagan. Under a headline that boldly asks "Is This the Best Album Ever Made?", O'Hagan writes of how this release "has since come to be regarded as perhaps the greatest work of art to emerge out of the pop tradition ... Astral Weeks is a work of such singular beauty, such sustained emotional intensity, that nothing recorded before or since sounds even remotely similar—or indeed comparable."

As I ambled down the stairways and hallways of the old Catacombs club, making jokes to Lupton about the need to leave a breadcrumb trail so we can navigate our way out, I thought about all the pomp and praise I had heard or read (or even spoken or written myself) about Astral Weeks: its achievement is unparalleled in popular music, it infinitely expanded the possibilities of artistic expression, it's the rare album that exists outside both time and genre, it tops any list of the greatest records ever produced, its creator is a heroic visionary, etc., etc. Superlatives bounced around in my head; masterful words used to describe a musical masterwork.

On Bolyston Street, rubbing my still-adjusting eyes on the sleeve of my coat, I spoke with Lupton about the Catacombs' most unappealing qualities and how it would be hopelessly out of place among today's more sanitized venues. "Imagine seeing a show there," I said. "Imagine playing there."

And with those words came—not quite an epiphany or even a tiny flash of startling insight—but a slow-burning realization: For a long time Astral Weeks existed before the celestial praise, before the unembarrassed veneration, before wonderful writers like O'Hagan and Lester Bangs and Greil Marcus helped polish the album until it became the iconic, life-transforming gem that it is today. For a long, long time, Astral Weeks existed in the old Catacombs club I just toured, in a Green St. apartment in Cambridge, Mass., in a Hyndford St. bedroom in East Belfast. It existed on reel-to-reel tapes, in lyric-filled notebooks, on scraps of paper, on strummed acoustic guitars, in conversations with Morrison's friends and family and fellow musicians. It existed in the fingers and hands and hearts and minds of Morrison and the Berklee students recruited to back him, upright bassist Tom Kielbania and flautist/saxophonist John Payne.

Astral Weeks wasn't always absolute and it wasn't always infinite. It was once a shifting collection of ever-developing songs, a pure effort from Morrison to—I'm quoting the Irishman here—“break out of this rigidity” and return to a more stripped-bare approach to his music. Astral Weeks was once just a commitment, a gamble, a promise, a dream.

In "Reliable Sources," the mammoth-sized press kit Morrison's management team released in 1974, there was this line: "Ya gotta look back to see where you’re going." It's a sentiment that has come to characterize Morrison's artistry, all those songs in which he looked back at the landscapes of post-war Belfast, the narratives that inhabited those places, and the inspirations and passions that carried him through boyhood. Morrison sang so frequently about his past that it ultimately came to permanently reside in the present.

Only by looking back can one properly assess what Morrison achieved on Astral Weeks. So I'll go back—all the way back to childhood obsessions with black American artists such as Leadbelly and Brownie McGhee & Sonny Terry, to an adolescence spent in Belfast's often unnavigable world of sectarian boundaries and identity politics, to volatile tenures on Ireland's creativity-killing showband circuit. Buried in the "way back" is the Morrison who started to find stimulation in not only the world’s magnificence, but its brutality as well. Here, we discover the Morrison who began to understand that art is not always about depicting those people and places that are true, but those emotions that are true—the Morrison who came to the understanding that whenever he turned his back on his divided homeland, his medium would always bring him back to it.

You can hear all this on Astral Weeks, even when each listen tells you something different. It's a testament to the album's beauty and complexity. Are you ready to look back yet? Let’s venture in the slipstream. Let’s take a trip—back to when Astral Weeks was just a dream.

* * * * *

Artists still perform at the old Catacombs club—just not in the manner they once did. As Lupton and I descended the long flight of stairs stretching from the street door to the first basement level, we first heard the music. Through a twisting hallway we walked, down past a grimy, communal bathroom; our steps stirred papers stuck to the walls, flyers with tear-off tabs advertising the services of amp repairmen and experienced upright bassists. The hallway was lined with closed doors, each one sporting a number above it. Behind one, we heard a drummer working on heavy fills. At the next, a guitarist brashly repeated a few chords; further down the hallway, another door and a saxophonist performing a few shrieking runs.

Unlike Morrison's short residency in the summer of 1968, during which the Irishman regularly jammed with Kielbania and Payne in front of assembled crowds, these musicians played by themselves. This is because the Catacombs is now a spot for individual rehearsing. Students from Berklee College of Music, as well the nearby Boston Conservatory, come here to reserve rooms and hone their skills.

"It's a little sad—the place has lost much of its lore," Doug Ferriman told me after my visit to the Catacombs. "It's just a rehearsal space now, without any of the character it once had."

Ferriman is the founder and CEO of Crazy Dough's Pizza, which has locations throughout the Greater Boston area. One is at 1124 Bolyston St., so close to the old Catacombs club that particularly raucous student rehearsals would probably shake the establishment's walls. When Ferriman opened his Bolyston St. restaurant in 1999, the Catacombs was no longer a venue for live shows, but had essentially become an inheritance piece.

"The space was handed down from one band to the next," Ferriman explained. "The last to occupy it was a local heavy metal act. Bands used it to hang out and practice. It was a party place for any artists coming through town. I heard Bob Dylan visited—even bands like Megadeth. They would go down there to party and jam."

Ferriman said the code of secrecy surrounding the Catacombs made the space even more fascinating: "It was totally off the grid. Nobody knew about it except this small network of artists. It was very cool."

Ferriman had the opportunity to visit the Catacombs before it was purchased by its current owners, a Boston-based real estate corporation named the Hamilton Company. Pre-renovations, the space featured a 23-foot stage, an expansive dance floor, a bowling alley on the second basement level, and a wide assortment of peculiar bric-a-brac (Ferriman recalled seeing an antique barber’s chair). It ceased being an underground party destination when it was deemed to be in violation of city fire codes. (The only exit is the street-level door Lupton and I entered through.)

"I believe I was one of the last people down there before it was gutted," Ferriman said. "My memento was an old steel drum I always eyed on the wall."

Harry Sandler, co-founder of the Music Museum of New England and an artist who played at the Catacombs in the 1960s, described the venue rather aptly: "Very dark, dirty."

The Catacombs ... A space sullied by dirt and tinged with darkness, a place where old steel drums decorated the walls. A former club on Bolyston Street where Morrison discovered that with music—much like life—the thrill is in what you discover and learn along the way, not in how and where you finish. The Catacombs, where an artist created music that not only defined his career, but helped define how we look at the world and ourselves.

No comments:

Post a Comment